Construction of Identity: Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa?

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Construction of Identity: Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa?
Paul E. Lovejoy
Vincent Carretta claims that recently discovered documents concerning the baptism of Gustavus Vassa and his subsequent employment in the British navy “cast doubt” on the early life of the person usually recognized as Olaudah Equiano, author of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself.1 The two documents in question are his baptismal record at St. Margaret’s Church in London and the muster records from the Arctic expedition of Sir John Phipps (later Lord Mulgrave) in 1773, both of which attest to his birth in South Carolina.2 Carretta casts his web of doubt even broader, suggesting that Vassa/Equiano was born in 1747, not 1745 as claimed in The Interesting Narrative, and certainly not in 1742, as I argue in an article appearing in Slavery and Abolition.3 For Carretta, the author of The Interesting Narrative was a “self-made” man, adopting a public image as Olaudah Equiano, who had been born in Africa, when in fact he was known as Gustavus Vassa, and had been born in South Carolina. For Carretta, “self-made” has a double meaning, including both his success in achieving his emancipation and becoming famous and the fictionalization of his childhood to achieve this end.

Does anyone care where Vassa/Equiano was born? Do a few years difference in when he might have been born matter? I would say the answer to both questions is positive, and Carretta’s analysis of the available data is seriously flawed and does not withstand the test of historical methodology. It may seem that the existence of two independent written documents stating place of birth is confirmation that Vassa was born in South Carolina, but if other evidence casts doubt on the documentation, there is a methodological challenge that pits memory against documentation. How is cultural information to be interpreted in the light of conflicting documentation, and what is the context of the documentation that might call the documents themselves into question, or at least blur their possible significance?

According to Carretta, the recent discoveries suggest that “the author of The Interesting Narrative may have invented rather than reclaimed an African identity,” and if this is the case, then it follows that “he invented his African childhood and his much-quoted account of the Middle Passage on a slave ship.” In short, documentation for a South Carolina birth place and problems in Vassa’s own chronology of his youth raise sufficient grounds to express “reasonable doubt” about Vassa’s claim to an African birth. Indeed, Carretta considers that “the burden of proof…is now on those who believe that The Interesting Narrative is a historically accurate piece of non-fiction.” This response, therefore, is in part a reaction to Carretta’s challenge that “anyone who still contends that Equiano’s account of the early years of his life is authentic is obligated to account for the powerful conflicting evidence.”

The methodological issues relate to how historians engage oral tradition, memory, and other non-written sources with the written record. The information being conveyed has different meaning if Vassa was born in Africa or in South Carolina, at least to the historian. If he was an eyewitness to events and practices in Africa, it is one thing. If it is a composite of stories and information gathered from others, it is another matter, although clearly any account can be a combination of both. The issue here is whether or not there is sufficient evidence that Vassa’s account of Africa is based on personal observation and experience or not. Despite some qualifications, Carretta essentially claims that the first part of The Interesting Narrative is a fictionalized account of life in Africa and the horrors of the Middle Passage, whereas I think that there is sufficient internal evidence to conclude that the account is essentially authentic, although certainly informed by later reflection, Vassa’s acquired knowledge of Africa, and memories of others whom he knew to have come from the Bight of Biafra. The reflections and memories used in autobiography are always filtered, but despite this caveat, I would conclude that Vassa was born in Africa and not in South Carolina.

The significance of this man is not disputed. Vassa was an intellectual and political figure of heroic proportions. The difference is this: Carretta wants us to believe that he manufactured an account of his early life because he was a smart, creative, clever political and intellectual activist. He bent the truth to achieve a political end, the liberation of his people, and the ending of slavery, first through the abolition of the slave trade and eventually through emancipation. The political activist and intellectual theorist had to merge the process of enslavement through the violence of kidnapping with the popular mind, gambling aversion to the fear of losing children would put pressure on the few people in Britain who actually voted for Members of Parliament, and ultimately Parliament itself. It worked in that Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807, but whether or not Vassa was telling the truth about his birth or making it up for political ends has not been settled, apparently. I certainly agree with Carretta’s assessment of Vassa’s literary achievements: “He gave a voice to the millions of people forcibly taken from Africa and brought to the Americas as slaves.” I think the evidence suggests that his voice was authentic because he personally experienced the Middle Passage. Carretta thinks Vassa was a creative author who used public memory to produce a literary text that was useful in the abolition movement and almost incidentally a work of art. Fraud can produce great art, but so can truth.

The North American connection is also firmly established, whether or not Vassa was born in South Carolina. He was in North America as a slave boy in Virginia, as a slave on a merchant ship and was allowed to trade on his own account, owned by a merchant from Philadelphia, and as an abolitionist in New York and Philadephia on a visit from London, where he lived. His connection with Philadelphia was important; he must have met abolitionist Antony Benezet, perhaps through his master, and was impressed by Quakers and their opposition to slavery. Vassa’s autobiography had an influence on the slave narrative literature in North America, probably more so than is yet apparent. How many times his early editions were passed around is simply not known, and there was significant number to require a second North American edition. At least, The Interesting Narrative is significant in terms of identification of a literature of resistance and anti-racist paradigms advocated by African intellectuals. It can be accepted that Vassa was a man of the “Black Atlantic.”

The controversy arises from the interpretation of Vassa’s life before the summer of 1754, and here my reconstruction of the early years of Vassa’s life varies considerably from that of Carretta. Perhaps we are pursuing historical understanding in different ways, Carretta pushing the evidence that casts doubts on what Vassa says and my own efforts to find out why there are contradictions, assuming that we are dealing with an historic figure who was an honest man and who did NOT deliberately and consciously deceive people. If he had, then he successfully fooled a large number of people in his own day, many of whom were very influential and intelligent. While Carretta appears to have uncovered evidence that Vassa was a fraud and that he knowingly lied, I am asking the question. What if he was telling the truth? Then how do we account for evidence that conflicts with what he said? Moreover, when would he have invented his narrative, what evidence is there that helps to explain the construction of the narrative, and why would he deliberately have altered his natal home, and if he did, what is the evidence? How old would he have been? How did he sustain the deception, if he constructed an African birth but in fact was born in South Carolina. What are his reflections on being in South Carolina later in his life? As Carretta notes, “Vassa himself of course may not have been responsible for the information or misinformation regarding the place and date of his birth recorded at his baptism, but the correct information was presumably available to the future Mrs. Baynes, who Vassa later said first knew him as African.” This contradiction alone raises questions about the baptismal record. Similarly, the fact that he worked for Dr. Charles Irving on the Arctic expedition in 1773, and later was involved with Irving in the abortive plantation scheme on the Mosquito Shore in 1776, has not been examined carefully. On the Arctic expedition, Vassa registered his birth as being in South Carolina, while Irving hired him for the Mosquito Shore venture because he could speak the language of his “countrymen,” i.e. Igbo. The seemingly irrefutable evidence of the two documents is brought into question when examined in context.

The biggest lacuna in Carretta’s scholarship is the answer to the question: where did Vassa learn his understanding of Igbo cosmology and society, indeed his knowledge of the Igbo language, as revealed in the vocabulary that he mentions in The Interesting Narrative? Did he learn it in the Carolinas before he was sold to Pascal? This is unlikely, since there were few Igbo in South Carolina, and he was not in Virginia long enough to meet any one with whom he could speak, according to his own testimony, even though there were relatively many Igbo in the tidewater region. He was only there seven weeks, by his own account, which no one has disputed, and he met no one with whom he could speak. He clearly did not speak English, although by this time if he had come from Africa he would have probably have begun to learn some words. If he had been born in South Carolina, he would have known English in the form spoken on plantations, a pidgin but nonetheless English. If he did understand Igbo, then, where and when did he learn it? A birth in Igboland and close contact with people who spoke his language of birth, i.e., other speakers of the Igbo language, until he was almost 12 answers these questions. Does a birth in South Carolina suggest as conclusive evidence of origins? I would suggest not.

According to Carretta, Vassa’s “account of Africa is a combination of printed sources, memory, and imagination,” presumably Carretta means the memory of others who were responsible for what he was told, since Carretta believes him to have been born in South Carolina. This conception of memory seems to merge into “imagination,” and hence fiction, but is it really safe to conclude that because Vassa had great literary skills that he made it up? I think not, although he understood how to use language to convey a poignant story that in its telling might influence history, which it did. Anthony Benezet has been cited as a source, and it is clear that Benezet was an influence on Vassa’s political development, which he duly acknowledges in The Interesting Narrative. But what could Vassa have learned? A close reading of Benezet’s books and pamphlets reveals that he had absolutely nothing to say about Igboland or Igbo culture and society.4 His work, with its noble polemics of anti-slavery, is nothing more than long quotes, within quotation marks, of different sources to prove Benezet’s point that slavery was evil and that everything possible should be done to stamp it out and abolish the slave trade. Benezet’s ideological and moral position was an important influence in Vassa’s comprehension of the political and religious aspects of abolition, but he was not a source of information on Africa. Vassa’s reference to Benin, Libya, and Abyssinia are all clearly intended to situate his own people within the “Africa” with which he had come to identify.

Who were Vassa’s confidants when he was writing The Interesting Narrative in 1788? And what did they believe? Why would they buy into a fraud, and what evidence is there for anyone doing so? Vassa was a person of principle and he was an astute political observer. Rather than commit a fraud to achieve a political end of humanitarian proportions, he actually told the truth, at least there is overwhelming evidence that suggests as much. Carretta asks the question, “Why might Equiano have created an African nativity, and disguised an American birth?” I would ask, when would he have done this, and what textual evidence is there for the invention, despite the baptismal register and the Arctic muster roll? The evidence suggests that he knew Igbo as a language, and had had personal contact with Igbo culture as a child. If he had manufactured this information, when could he have done it, and on the basis of what authority?

According to Carretta, “Despite claiming to describe distinctively Igbo manners, he conflates accounts of various African ethnic groups to construct a kind of pan-African identity, a sort of essential African.” Carretta does not make it clear which ethnic groups are conflated, and I would argue, to the contrary, Vassa provides the earliest information on several important Igbo institutions, including some insight into how these institutions operated before the middle of the eighteenth century. Most important, in my opinion, is Vassa’s description of the ichi facial markings and their significance. Carretta’s conclusion on the process of how ethnicity played itself out in the interior of the Bight of Biafra is based on no authority, while Vassa’s account is compatible with the findings of numerous historians who have studied the interior of the Bight of Biafra. Indeed, I would assert that Vassa’s description of his country and his people is sufficient confirmation that he was born where he said he was, and based on when boys received the ichi scarification, that he was about 11 when he was kidnapped, as he claims, which suggests a birth date of c. 1742, not 1745 or 1747. A shift in the chronology this way is warranted on the basis of internal evidence in The Interesting Narrative and the fact that Pascal arrived in England in December 1754 with the slave boy he had named Gustavus Vassa.

If Carretta is correct about Vassa’s age at time of baptism, accepting the documentary evidence, then he was a boy too young to have created a complex fraud about origins. If he were as old as I think he was at the time of baptism, he might have been able to have constructed such a story, but there is little proof that he did and some proof that he did not. The fraud must have been perpetrated later, but when? Certainly the baptismal record cannot be used as proof that he committed fraud, only that his god-parents might have. But why would they have done so is the question, not what a slave might have said in St. Margaret’s Church, where the Members of Parliament met for morning prayers before opening session. Vassa was in the sanctuary of power, probably the only slave ever baptized in St.Margaret’s, and he was given a birth place of Carolina. Was this a social event, a fraud of another kind, a joke? He was, after all, none other than Gustavus Vassa, the saviour of his people, named after the liberator of Sweden, and seems to have believed that he had been promised manumission on baptism. The text itself points to authenticity, not fraud. It is the detail in the baptismal registry that requires explanation. As Carretta observes, Vassa provides details during and after the Seven Years’ War, which, when possible to verify, are remarkably accurate.

Vassa’s description of Igbo cultural features are not generic African practices or some garbled merging of accounts, as has been claimed. Moreover, Carretta is not accurate in stating that “Modern scholars rightly point out that of the surviving brief 18th-century descriptions of the kingdom of Benin, Equiano’s account of Igboland is the most fully developed.” In my opinion, this is inaccurate because Vassa’s account has nothing to do with the Kingdom of Benin, which Vassa added to his narrative on the basis of reading Benezet, who specifically did not discuss Igboland. Vassa was attempting to situate what he knew within the framework of what was known about Africa, and similarly he used such terms as “Libyan” and “Ethiopian” to try to achieve the same results. He also contrasted his people with Jews and Muslims, once again to establish similarities and differences with his own memories of his homeland. The relationship with the Kingdom of Benin is in fact plausible, but only parts of Igboland west of the Niger River were tributary to Benin in the eighteenth century, and the area that Vassa was from almost certainly was not that part of Igboland, but rather central Igboland, to the east of the Niger River. While Vassa drew on published sources for what he knew about other parts of Africa, there is nothing in any of the known sources that he used that actually has anything to say about Igboland. His information has to have been derived from his own experience, whatever he learned in London from some of his own “countrymen.”

According to Carretta, “critics and scholars have increasingly come to recognize that his account’s apparent uniqueness does not guarantee its authenticity.”5 In support of this contention, Carretta refers to various critics, including S.E. Ogude, who have seemed to have criticized the “igboness” of Vassa’s account, although it seems to me that the concerns of these critics are with issues of orthography and Vassa’s attempts to render complex concepts understandable to an audience that had no knowledge of Africa, and in which he himself had only partially understood as a boy. Ogude’s criticisms are intended to demonstrate the difficulty of establishing where a boy named Equiano might have come from in Igboland, not that he did not come from there. Despite the identification of key Igbo words and concepts, it is not possible to be certain about the dialect, and hence Vassa’s identification with a particular part of Igboland remains in doubt.6

Vassa is one of the earliest people to say he was an African, and in accordance with contemporary usage in Europe, to be equated with Ethiopians and Libyans. As Alexander Byrd has demonstrated, Vassa’s use of these concepts reflects evolving meanings of nation and citizenship as discussed in the late eighteenth century.7 The term “Eboe” as used by Vassa had various meanings. In the eighteenth century, apparently, it was not a term that described a common ethnic identity because its implication was pejorative; it meant “other” people, both neighbours and foreigners, but who presumably spoke a dialect of Igbo, and who in fact would now be recognized as Igbo. Vassa’s use of these various terms, and others such as “countrymen” and “nation” are important examples of how Vassa, and by extension, others from Africa and of African descent were grappling with issues of identity and community.

Hence, it may appear that Carretta has a good case, much better than that of Vassa’s critics who first challenged his claim of an African birth in 1792. The baptism record states age and place of birth, as does the Arctic muster book, despite differences in the derived date of birth, the baptism record suggesting a date of birth in 1747, and the Arctic list indicating 1745. The weakness in Carretta’s argument arises from his understanding of the ethnography and history of the interior of the Bight of Biafra. Moreover, Carretta’s chronology for Vassa’s life is not supported by the available evidence, and it is more likely that Vassa was born before he says he was, rather than later. This reconstruction suggests that he was about 12 when he first arrived in England, as he states in The Interesting Narrative, which we know to have been in December 1754. If he had been born in 1747, as Carretta has concluded, it is unlikely that he could have earned his freedom between 1763 and 1766, in fact earning much more than the cost of his ransom because he suffered from theft and non-payment, which would have meant that he was able to earn his freedom by the time he was 19. If this was the case, he would have been a most unusual young man indeed. If however, he was born in 1742, he would have been baptized when he was 17, earning his freedom by the time he was 24, which seems more plausible.

1 The edition used here is Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings (New York: Penguin Books, Vincent Carretta, ed., 2003), and referred to as Vassa, Interesting Narrative, when citing the text itself, and otherwise to Carretta, Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, when citing other materials in Carretta’s edition.

2 See Vincent Carretta, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self Made Man (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005). For earlier discussions of Carretta’s position, see his “Introduction,” Interesting Narrative and Other Writings; “Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New Light on an Eighteenth-century Question of Identity,” Slavery and Abolition, 20, 3 (December 1999), 96-105; and “Questioning the Identity of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African,” in Felicity Nussbaum, ed. The Global Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 226-235.

3 “Autobiography and Memory: Gustavus Vassa, alias Olaudah Equiano, the African,” 4Slavery and Abolition, forthcoming 2006.

4 Anthony Benezet, Some Historical Account of Guinea, Its Situation, Produce and the General Disposition of its Inhabitants with an Inquiry into the Rise and Progress of the Slave Trade, its nature and lamentable effects (London: Frank Cass, 1968 [1771]). Benezet quoted at length various European observations of western Africa, but nothing on the interior of the Bight of Biafra, skipping from the Kingdom of Benin to Kongo and Angola in his descriptions and reports. He quotes some information on Barbados that presumably Vassa could have used, but not on his homeland.

5 S.E. Ogude, “Facts into Fiction: Equiano's Narrative Reconsidered,” Research in African Literatures 13 (1982), 30-43; and Ogude, “No Roots Here: On the Igbo Roots of Olaudah Equiano,” Review of English and Literary Studies 5 (1989), 1-16.

6 G.I. Jones made a bold attempt to locate a specific home, but made a number of serious mistakes in identifying features that are in fact more widely distributed than he understood, and accounting for some practices that Vassa reported that were not found in the area west of the Niger, where Jones thought Vassa was from. Various Igbo scholars have thought otherwise, and the concensus is the Orlu area as likely. Jones failed to make the distinction between what Benezet said about Benin and what Vassa tried to reconcile. G.I. Jones, “Olaudah Equiano of the Niger Ibo,” in Philip D. Curtin, ed., Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), 60-69.

7 Alexander X. Byrd, “Eboe, Country, Nation and Gustavus Vassa’s Interesting Narrative,” William and Mary Quarterly (forthcoming 2006).

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